The Struggle To Be Jewish And German


Germans and Jews: A Personal Exploration

By W. Michael Blumenthal

Counterpoint 444pp $27.50

In March, 1812, Prussia's King Frederick William III granted his country's Jews the right to vote in municipal elections. The Edict of Emancipation was a watershed, welcomed by its oppressed beneficiaries with an outpouring of gratitude. When Prussia joined forces with Russia the following year to drive out Napoleon, Jewish men flocked to enlist, and families donated silver and savings to support the war effort.

But it wasn't long before Jews learned that they still were not accepted. Defeating Napoleon fueled German nationalism, and anti-Semitism came back into vogue with a vengeance. In an epidemic of rioting in 1819, youth gangs from Hamburg to Berlin set fire to Jewish houses, pillaged Jewish businesses, and beat up every Jew they could find.

The history of modern Germany's Jews is full of such seesaws between triumphs of integration and tragedies of rejection. In The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews, a Personal Exploration, former U.S. Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal chronicles a love-hate relationship existing between two populations whose schizophrenia has yet to be cured. Painstakingly researched and often poetically written, the book goes further than many others toward answering the 20th century question of why the Holocaust took place in Germany.

Blumenthal structures his history, spanning some 350 years, around the stories of six ancestors, culled from official and personal records. It is a beautiful narrative device, allowing the author to interweave anecdote and exposition seamlessly. For instance, the first of the line, Jost Liebmann, started his career in the 1660s as a wandering peddler and ended it as a wealthy Berliner--the court jeweler to King Frederick I. His rise illustrates not only the lives and times of his co-religionists but also the founding of modern Prussia--key to the Jews' later treatment in Germany.

From the beginning, Jews succeeded in Germany against huge odds. Subject to dozens of special taxes, barred from craft guilds and most professions, and physically safe only when they carried expensive letters of protection, they initially were highly segregated, living in small, self-supporting communities. Yet Jews were drawn to Prussia in part because even less hospitable conditions prevailed elsewhere in Europe. In White Russia and the Ukraine, pogroms were carried out regularly; in France and Austria, Jews had no civil rights whatever; and in Spain and Portugal, they were either driven out or burned for heresy well into the 18th century.

Jews' gradual integration into Prussian society came via a series of invitations to participate in the German economy. When the Seven Years War left Frederick the Great close to bankruptcy, he relied on Jews in charge of the royal mint to inflate the Prussian currency with new, cheaper coins that used less silver. It was a risky but profitable business that helped create a new Jewish business elite in the 18th century. Yet such developments almost always came with a backlash of renewed resentment.

Jews in turn vacillated between longing to enter the mainstream of German secular culture and desiring to hew to their religious roots. That struggle is summed up in the tale of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, born Rahel Levin. Blumenthal's distant relative adopted the values of the Age of Enlightenment, presided over a salon of luminaries that included poet Heinrich Heine, and married a gentile aristocrat. Her fondest wish, to become truly German, was shattered by a resurgence of Prussian anti-Semitism, and she died in 1833 feeling bitterly betrayed.

Even when he has little material with which to build three-dimensional characters, Blumenthal manages to give his relatives presence. And the closest are drawn with heartfelt sympathy. Blumenthal's father, Ewald, was an assimilated middle-class German Jew who had won an Iron Cross fighting for the Kaiser and who had run a successful family banking business. When the Nazis rose to power, "he stayed in Germany and hoped that Hitler was only a bad dream," writes Blumenthal. After surviving two years in Buchenwald, Ewald escaped with his family to the Shanghai ghetto, then emigrated to San Francisco in 1947. With his father, Blumenthal closes the circle: "We were leaving as our ancestors had once arrived. Poor Jews, paupers, without a country of our own."


Unfortunately, Blumenthal devotes little space to his own career in America. He attended Princeton University and went on to become chairman of Bendix Corp. and Burroughs Corp. before serving in the State Dept. and ultimately as Treasury Secretary under President Jimmy Carter. Since his book is about Germany, it is understandable that Blumenthal has deemed his own post-emigration story irrelevant. Yet one wishes he had delved more deeply into the feelings that drove him to write the book.

Nevertheless, he has written a courageous and moving treatment of a painful subject. The Invisible Wall describes a people so stubbornly in love with their adopted homeland that countless hardships, including the Holocaust itself, came to them as an utter shock. To non-Germans, any Jew's choice to remain in Germany may seem evidence of a nearly incredible state of denial. But as Blumenthal's book shows, the psychology of the German Jews is more complicated than that.